"It is good that you have returned" says Entandil, "for we shall soon have to go to the feast." "Yess! Food!" "Yay! Food! Food!" The girls react as if they had been starved to the brink of death. For one of them at least, that is clearly not the case: While not exactly overweight, Theelene does have enough shock absorber to last for some days, surely. But their eagerness seems quite genuine, and even Birni radiates childlike glee at the thought of an upcoming meal.
Seeing Helge-Dag's confusion, the mage explains: "The village will be holding a great feast to honor you. There will be rare foods, condiments and beverages, song and music, dancing and good cheer. The villagers have already set up the circle of eating tables in the central plaza. We should not wait until the very last moment to arrive, for all will want to see you." "That's what I was afraid of" mutters Helge-Dag. He can almost feel hundreds of eyes already inspecting every pore in his skin. "What do you mean, afraid?" asks Xarya. "I will protect you with my life!" "Actually more likely with the lives of whoever might want you any harm" corrects Theelene. "I'm not good with crowds" mutters Helge-Dag. "All the people." "It's not a crowd. It is our village. They have taken us into their hearts, and now they are doing the same to you." "Fat comfort." "Let us not tarry! The food is waiting!" "Food! Food! Glorious food!"
Indeed, the smell of food is carried on the slight breeze as the small group makes its way to the center of the village. Low tables are set up in a horse-shoe shape, or perhaps a barely incomplete circle. In the middle is an unlit bonfire. On the tables are various earthenware vessels and trays loaded with food. Baskets are filled with fruits, or at least it looks like fruit from a distance. The closer he comes, the less familiar everything seems. Yes, he can recognize some fruits, while most are utterly unfamiliar but still vaguely fruit-like. The same applies to the other food groups. Then again, he remembers the first time he ate at a Chinese restaurant. He can just hope these people don't eat their food with nutcrackers or corkscrews or some such.
Once again the villagers come running, babbling, grabbing. Helge-Dag tries to maneuver so that there is always one of the small group between him and the mob, but the group is quite too small for that to succeed. He feels like running away screaming, if only there were someplace to run. There isn't, so he just stands quite still, looks down and hides his hands in his pockets. So what if he's not being polite? He did not exactly ask to come here.
After a non-quantifiable period of silent panic, he is rescued by a little old lady. She calls out something he cannot hear in the din, and suddenly everyone start to drift away and find their places at the tables. Evidently everyone has his or her own place, despite the seemingly informal setup. Xarya drags him to the closed end of the U, and plops him down beside her on the right and Entandil on the left. Theelene, further to the right, grumbles softly, while Birni beside her again watches in silent amusement. Helge-Dag is confused again. According to the pecking order he has guessed so far, he should be to the right of Birni ... provided that they are sorted by status from left to right, each lesser minion sitting at the right hand of the greater. Perhaps the two beside him are simply the best qualified to protect him in case some minor deity decides to kidnap him. Not that the atmosphere seems to indicate any nervousness at all – with the notable exception of his humble self.
The little old lady stands at the open end of the U, and as soon as
everyone is seated she speaks.
Theelene may have been discreet, but Helge-Dag still noticed the quick hand movements that she fluttered to the old woman as she floundered at his name. Improvisation is quite an art. The little old lady has the good sense to wind down her speech pretty quickly, and concludes: "Let us all give our thanks in song to the Dancing Goddess!" And suddenly the villagers all jump to their feet and sing. The melody is unfamiliar, but hauntingly beautiful; it consists of at least five different melodies at the same time, and yet they somehow weave together into one great harmony. The sheer pureness and beauty of it makes his skin prickle. It is as if, for a brief moment, he can feel something there. Some presence that is greater than the sum of the villagers. Then the song fades into silence. And then the meal breaks loose.
There is nothing solemn over the way people attack the food, and this holds doubly true for the young girls beside him. The concept of plates has drifted over to this world too – or perhaps it came from here originally – though they look just as much like wide, flat bowls. Onto these they heap a variety of roasted vegetables; something that smells like barbecued meat but looks like reams of giant mushrooms; and a kind of vaguely bread-like baked goods, densely interspersed with tiny cubes of what may be fruit or perhaps vegetables and bits of what may have been cheese before it melted. Unfamiliar spicy smells come from parts of the food heap, but he is unable to say where.
Helge-Dag is still trying to decide on what can be safely tried, when Xarya surveys a platter loaded with a precarious tower of foods, and prepares to attack it with the local implements of eating, a knade and a knork. Well, that's his name for them. The knade is a vaguely knife-like design but expands to something like a small spade at the end. The knork is, of course, a knife that ends in a shallow fork. Theelene is already demonstrating how efficient these can be in shoveling food into a mouth, but Xarya hesitates, noticing Helge-Dag's empty plate. "Have some!" she cries, and starts heaping food onto his plate too.
The food is actually quite good. Of course it helps that he hasn't exactly been wallowing in food for the past day. He also drinks a lot of juice. It is not very sweet, but very fresh, with a taste like wild berries. Even so, Xarya looks worriedly at him after emptying her own plate. "Are you sick? You have barely touched your food." "Sorry, but speed eating is not a sport where I come from. Besides, I try to taste the stuff." "Suit yourself." She creates a new leaning tower of food on her own plate and starts all over again. From the corner of his eye, he sees Theelene do the same.
He is barely halfway through when the tables are cleared and sweets are brought in. There are sweetened fruit cremes, honey-glazed fruits, sugary drinks and much more. And the berries. Actually they look like small but ripe plums, but are more like grapes in that there are only tiny seeds. "Have some!" orders Xarya, "you could really need them." "Need?" He is actually nearly full, and may not be able to sample everything he sees on the table. "These are gameberries" says Entandil. "They dissolve inhibitions." "You don't have those in your world?" asks Xarya. "Not exactly. People tend to drink alcohol when they want to loosen up. From fermented juice or other fermented stuff." "Icky." "I think you will find gameberries superior to the yeast toxins. They are quite tasty and has far fewer side effects." "What are the side effects?" "With moderate use, just a tingling feeling and heightened sensitivity to touch, and a feeling of warmth as blood flows to your skin and some such."
Helge-Dag stares at the things. Dissolve inhibitions? He is light-years from home, surrounded by strangers; friendly strangers, but still ... is this really the right place for a vaguely Christian young man to dissolve inhibitions? They are there for a reason, are they not? On the other hand, it would probably be impolite not to even taste them. And seeing as the girls already have both hands full, it can't possibly harm to eat just one or two. He can just pretend he doesn't like the taste. Actually he may not like it at all, not being used to it. He carefully picks up one of the small plum-like berries and bites into it.
The juice streams into his mouth; the thing is almost all juice. And it tastes wonderful. It tastes better than anything he has tasted in a long time. And then suddenly he has swallowed it all, only the memory lingers in his mouth. It certainly can't hurt to try one more ...
"It certainly feels good to fill up that old belly again" declares Xarya. "You make it sound like you people don't eat often. Does this mean I'll have to wait a week for the next meal? In my world, people tend to eat 3 or more times a day." "Oh, we do eat, kind of. But when we are on the road, we only eat one thing." "Not gameberries, I hope." The girls giggle in unison. "Show him, Theelene. Show him the secret power that fuels the Burning Hand!" Theelene makes a movement with her hand, and seemingly out of nowhere a small longish box appears. It has a picture on it and writing, in a script that is utterly alien to him. Then, as he keeps staring at it, there is a small flash of light from the pendant, and the picture starts to blur as the script transforms into letters, larger at the edges and smaller towards the middle. "POwerpaCK-Y" he reads aloud.
The girls cheer. Even Birni cheers. "You can travel all week and never get tired as long as you have an endless supply of POwerpaCK-Y" assures Theelene. "As we happen to have." "How come?" "I am a transport magess. I can easily teleport small things over large distances, and especially when I have a magic artifact like this ... the box of never ending POwerpaCK-Y! It is a very specialized teleportation augmentation device, which automatically homes in on the nearest cache of POwerpaCK-Y and draws a variety of different tastes until the box is full. There are caches in all vaguely civilized worlds – no self respecting goddess would let her servants suffer lack of POwerpaCK-Y!" "Don't take our word for it. Here!" Xarya grabs a handful of what seems like small sticks, and in one fluid motion, faster than a human eye can track, stuffs them in his half open mouth. It tastes heavenly. "Only problem is it makes you a bit thirsty. Luckily these berries are all juice!"
The gameberries do indeed taste particularly good after the dry food. He swallows a couple more of them. Xarya grins at him. Quite a fetching smile she has, funny he hadn't noticed that before. And Theelene ... well, she is every teenager's dream. He gets a kick inside, and he feels a tingle too ... he had not expected the tingle to be quite that localized, though. Not that it matters. Not that anything else matters, tonight. "Having a good time, HD? Well, it only gets better from here!" The feeling as her fingers touch his is one like plunging into water. His whole body tingles like crazy and he gasps for breath. Far away he can hear strange sounds, like shouting. Yes, it is indeed shouting. "Rakshasa! Rakshasa!" Suddenly the fingers are gone. Everybody turns around. And out of the newly fallen darkness stride two enormous shapes. One is around three meters tall, more than half again his own height, and rather bulky. The other is twice that, and incredibly massive. They look like trolls out of his childhood fantasies, and they come straight towards him.